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The Network-Connected Drone: Simple Concept, Complex Reality, Endless Possibilities

Víctor Fernández Cerdeño

Manager of Network as Platform Dev Team

A drone with a SIM-card. This simple concept is far more complex than it might at first seem. At the same time, it also has more potential than you could ever imagine.

For the last four years Vodafone, and specifically my team, has been working on this exact concept. Today I’d like to share this journey with you: how it started, where it’s at, and where it looks to be heading.

Network-connected drones 101

Back in 2017 I had just joined Vodafone’s New Technologies and Innovation team, whose modus operandi was to brainstorm disruptive innovations. As I joined, the team had just delivered proof that it was possible to create cellular coverage in an underserved area using a drone-mounted cellular relay. That was cool, but our team thought that we could do more with unmanned flight.

While we were experts in mobile networks, that expertise didn’t stretch to drones. We contacted a few companies in the space to try and understand their needs, and we ended up hearing one request more than any other: can we use cellular connectivity for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights? It was a simple but super exciting idea.

We began by simply strapping a 4G smartphone to a drone as a proof of concept. A few months later we achieved a World First when we developed a network-based system to identify, monitor, control and geo-locate unmanned aerial vehicles.

The key to a network-connected drone is in its cellular connectivity. Most drones are controlled using limited-range unlicensed spectrum technology. The obvious issue with this is that the drone pilot is restricted to a very limited range, but another issue is that the unlicensed spectrum is more prone to interference and safety issues. A SIM-enabled drone, on the other hand, is limited only by network coverage, increasing security and reliability, and opening up an opportunity for BVLOS flights.

Years later, and we now command drones in Southern Spain from our offices in Paddington, London.

Drones for good: reaching where others can’t

Why spend so much time and money developing drones with cellular connectivity? The use cases are really exciting, and in some cases life-saving.

Cellular-connected drones could be used in disaster relief, as they boast a unique ability to safely and efficiently locate people, assess damage and deliver aid. Conservationists could use these drones to track animals and combat poachers. In healthcare we could facilitate all manner of emergency medical deliveries of drugs, blood, organs or samples. The agriculture industry could conduct regular, real-time field surveys to better predict harvests and understand crop health. A similar approach could be taken in infrastructure projects, with drones monitoring progress, inspecting assets and managing inventory.

One thing underpins all these use cases: savings. Most of these tasks are able to be completed with other technologies, but they may not be as efficient and cost-effective – or as cool – as a network-connected drone.

A switch in mindset has further accelerated development within our network-connected drone project. Up until recently we’ve positioned our mobile network infrastructure as a key enabler for BVLOS drone flights, but more recently that positioning has evolved. We’re now focusing on the endless potential of APIs.

The idea is simple in concept: just as Apple opened up iTunes to third-party app developers to spur innovation, so too do we want to make it easier for Vodafone customers to work with us and speed up network-connected drone innovation. We’ve decided to provide data, functionalities, network capabilities and all other relevant information and tools via APIs. It’s exciting to think what our customers might come up with.

The challenges of being the first

Being the ice-breaker for new technology is always a challenge, and has proven particularly so in this case. The biggest hurdle our team has faced is regulation. We need to somehow align a wealth of stakeholders within the highly regulated aerospace ecosystem, which is made more difficult by the fact that this is a rapidly evolving technology.

A lot of work needs to be done on standardisation. One of the main issues is that drones that are equipped with cellular modems are subject to additional regulatory restrictions, as non-terrestrial users are not currently licensed. We are working closely with regulators to allow certain spectrum bands to be used by drones, but we’re not quite there yet.

That’s just one of the many bottlenecks we face in using cellular connectivity to create network-connected drones. A critical piece will be our ability to show regulators that using cellular connectivity can make flights safer than they currently are.

Because of the regulatory confusion and the perceived likelihood of encountering operational liabilities, many companies are reluctant to invest too many resources into network-connected drones. While it is true that potential liabilities are high and responsibilities are not clearly defined as yet, these risks pale in comparison to the incredible upsides of the technology, at least in our team’s view.

There’s something to be said for public perception too. Whenever a new technology is introduced there’s an almost inevitable focus on its negatives over its positives, even if those negatives require some mental gymnastics to conjure up. As the creators and enablers of the technology, all we can do is share what we see to be the endless potential of network-connected drones, and hope that the use cases speak for themselves.

Where do we fly from here?

Despite all the challenges, the future looks bright. I’d like to think that we’re getting close to the widespread use of mobile network data to fly safe, secure and cellular-connected drone missions. 5G has the potential to further enhance network-connected drone capabilities, such as our Cloud Drone concept, which would shift all non-critical functions, like video streaming and real-time image processing, to the cloud.

This technology would enable a significant reduction in size, weight and power consumption, meaning longer flight times. It would bring the ability to make real-time decisions, and to enable dynamic no-fly zones, a critical factor in our regulatory challenges. It would simultaneously improve data privacy and open up data accessibility, and with hardware no longer residing in the drone, new functionalities could be added with ease.

All in all, network-connected drones could be cheaper, lighter, more powerful, and ultimately safer.

From power line inspections to remote drone racing, the potential for cellular-connected drones seems limitless. In some ways it feels like we’re creating the future, and the opportunity to be a part of that is so exciting.

Imagine creating a technology that delivers life-saving healthcare in a fraction of the time. We don’t have to, because that’s what we do every weekday. And you may not have to imagine it either, because we’re currently looking for talented individuals to add to our team.

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